The Session #107: Are breweries your friends?

The SessionHappy New Year! I hope everyone had a great time the night before and rang in the new year with a beer or three! And since January 1 also falls on a Friday, it’s also time for another round of The Session! This first Session of 2016 is hosted by Dan Conley of Community Beer Works, a brewery in Buffalo, New York, and the topic Dan is suggesting is: Are breweries your friends?

To be in business nowadays you pretty much have to have a social media presence. This is especially true in the beer world, where some breweries have basically built themselves on their personality. And yet, at the end of the day, we’re also selling you something.

I believe this is the first Session to be hosted by a brewery rather than beer blogger. How do you feel about that? Do you want your feeds clear of businesses, or do you like when a brewery engages with people? Can you think of anyone who does it particularly well, or poorly? As the person who does our social media, which I think is very good (although not quite good enough), I struggle with this problem. I’m on both sides, and rather than come to any sort of conclusion of my own I thought I would make all of you write about it.

As with all things, the quick and easy answer boils down to, “It depends.” Ultimately I think (with few exceptions) that the overall size of the brewery—or perhaps we should be clear and say “business entity”—is what determines whether they are your “friend” or not. (The brewers, on the other hand—they and the other individuals who are part of the business, but not necessarily the business itself—can absolutely be your friends regardless of the size of the business.) Generally the very small breweries are much easier to engage with on a one-on-one basis, but the larger the brewery/business gets the less connected it becomes with individuals such as you or me, and the very biggest hire PR firms to fill that role.

However, I’m simply stating the obvious, and the reality is the individual experience each person has with a brewery is unique. Personally, breweries are one of the few types of business I do want to see in my social media feeds, partially because as a beer blogger/writer I want to keep up with the industry, and partially because I’m genuinely interested as a fan in what they are doing. I do believe breweries can be your friend, up to a point, and there are those that I consider as such.

I don’t know that I would equate “being on social media” with “friends” but active engagement doesn’t hurt. Social media gets you into the sticky wicket of trying to define relationships—friends, followers, subscribers, etc. and so on. The various social networks, handled properly, can go a long way towards humanizing and personifying a company (it helps to remember that there are individual people actually on the account interacting with you), but it’s still a business relationship. Plus, as database programmers can attest to, there are always scalability issues in one-t0-many relationships (although this may be offset by the network effect).

Deschutes Brewery Black Butte XXVIIAnswering one of Dan’s questions above, I do think Deschutes Brewery does a great job with their social media engagement, and fit one of the exceptions to the “bigger is less personable” rule of thumb I outlined above. But it does come back to an in-house digital marketing team that handles all this from a multi-pronged approach: blogging, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, email newsletters, and more, and Deschutes does employ a public relations company for other areas as well, and which regularly sends me samples of Deschutes beer. So this is a good example of how this all blends together in the real world: I have a business/customer/journalistic/blogging relationship with the Brewery, one that often requires me to disclose aspects of that relationship when writing about them, but I am also friends with a number of the people inside the business in such a way that I consider the “Brewery” a “Friend.” Or as Facebook might say: it’s complicated.

I see no problem with breweries as friends, be it in real life or on social media, as long as the larger implicit relationship, the seller-and-customer, is recognized and acknowledged as well. There has to be that line. It’s totally fine for a brewery to have a personality, and be engaging, and have friends, as long as that line is there and clear where the business and sales begin. And for us bloggers, it’s very important to know that distinction; in particular, PR-related activities do not equal “friendship.”

But, you know, it’s complicated.